Galloway Hills

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Over the Silver Flowe from the Dungeon Hills on the Rhinns of Kells in winter
From Buchan Hill down Loch Trool

The Galloway Hills overspread the north of Kirkcudbrightshire and much of Wigtownshire and the southern parts of Ayrshire. They are accounted part of the Southern Uplands, and contain the highest hills of them. The Galloway Forest Park is here, an area of some 300 square miles of largely uninhabited wild land, managed by the Forestry Commission.

The place-names amongst the hills, reflect a mixture of the Old Norse, English and Galloway Gaelic languages and hint at the range of influences which have acted on society within the area over the centuries. Here there are landscapes to conjure imagination and placenames likewise: The Range of the Awful Hand, The Dungeon, Rig of the Jarkness, Clints of the Buss, The Wolfstock, Howe of the Caldron and the Murder Hole.


The Galloway Hills are usually taken to encompass the ranges of hills which lie mainly south of Loch Doon, from the borders of Kirkcudbrightshire and Ayrshire southward. The county boundary runs west to east over these hills, over Kirriereoch Hill, to Mullwharchar to the shores of Loch Enoch, before heading northwards up the east shore of Loch Doon, and so runs more or less through what might well be considered the heart of the Galloway hills around Loch Enoch.

The northern limit of this hill area is around the small Ayrshire towns of Dalmellington and Straiton.The western bounds may be placed around Glentrool village and northwards towards Girvan and Maybole and the valley of Water of Minnoch.[1]

The Water of Ken makes a natural eastern boundary for the main body of the Galoway Hills, east of which the land continues hilly but in a more restrained manner.

Grey Man of the Merrick

The heartland of the Galloway Hills is amongst the high peaks north of a line running eastwards along the north shores of Loch Trool, Loch Dee and Clatteringshaws Reservoir. The Southern Upland Way and the National Cycle Network Route Number 7 travel along this line.

On the approach to Clatteringshaws Reservoir on the A712 heading for Newton Stewart the traveller encounters a hill called Cairnsmore of Dee or Black Craig of Dee (1,617 feet to the south. This is not a particularly high hill but it offers excellent views from the top over Clatteringshaws into the heart of the Galloway Hills. Likewise to the south past Murray's Monument there is an outlying range of hills around Cairnsmore of Fleet (2,333 feet). The top of Cairnsmore of Fleet is over a mile long, running almost north-south and it has tops at either end. To the south of this again is a group of small coastal hills around Cairnharrow just to the west of Gatehouse of Fleet. Immediately beyond that is the A75 running close to the shore of the Solway Firth.

Hills named Cairnsmore

Besides the Cairnsmore of Dee and Cainsmore of Fleet, there is a third "Cairnsmore" acting as a prominent sentinel around the borders of the Galloway Hills. This is Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (2,615 feet) which lies some 3 miles to the north east of Carsphairn village and is the prominent hill to the east of you as you walk the Rhinns of Kells. It belongs in its own range, the Carsphairn hills.

Access roads

  • South of Dalmellington on the A713, a forestry toll road brings you down the west side of Loch Doon, passing the reconstructed Loch Doon Castle[2] and bringing you out at Stinchar Bridge. You pass close to Loch Riecawr and Loch Bradan. The Barr to Loch Doon Cycle Route [3] uses this forest road.
  • From Glentrool village is a minor single track road running eastward to Bruce's Stone on the northern side of Loch Trool, a distance of some 4 miles. The road stops here for vehicle traffic but the N7 National Cycle Network Route carries on from there right over to Clatteringshaws.
  • A car can be driven as far as Craigencallie, which lies about half way between Loch Dee and Clatteringshaws. Access to the single track road which takes you there is just west of the Dam at Clatteringshaws reservoir on the A712.

Three ridges

The heartland of the Galloway hills lies to the north of Loch Trool and many excellent walks into that particularly wild remote territory start from the extensive car park by Bruce's Stone. There are three ridges which run northwards from the Loch Trool/Loch Dee/Clatteringshaws area - The Awful Hand on the west, The Rhinns of Kells to the east, and the Dungeon Hills in between.

Awful Hand

Dungeon Hills and Awful Hand from the Saddle between Millfire and Corserine in the Rhinns of Kells. 01 Dungeon Hill - 02 Merrick - 03 Little Spear of Merrick - 04 Kirriereoch - 05 Mullwharchar - 06 Tarfessock - 07 Shalloch on Minnoch - 08 Hoodens Hill
Main article: Range of the Awful Hand

The Awful Hand is named from its resemblance to a hand. From north to south are:

Merrick is the highest hill in Kirkcudbrightshire and indeed the highest in the Southern Uplands, though no challenge to the vast peaks of the Highlands. These five hills have ridges running off them to the west making the "Awful Hand", Benyellary being the thumb.

The hand is best seen from near Waterhead on Minnoch as you head south from Stinchar Bridge towards Glentrool village. The Awful Hand ridge is 5½ miles long as the crow flies from the top of Shalloch on Minnoch to the top of Benyellary, with some stiff climbs along the route especially around Kirriereoch and the Merrick, to any who take up the challenge of crossing it all.

Rhinns of Kells

Rhinns of Kells Range from Cairnsmore of Carsphairn

The Rhinns of Kells from north to south contain:

  • Black Craig (1,732 feet) on the east bank of Loch Doon,
  • Coran of Portmark (2,044 feet),
  • Meaul (2,280 feet),
  • Carlin's Cairn (2,648 feet),
  • Corserine (2,671 feet),
  • Millfire (2,349 feet),
  • Milldown (2,421 feet),
  • Meikle Millyea (2,448 feet),
  • Little Millyea (1,896 feet) and
  • Darrou (1,572 feet).

Darrou lies about half way between Loch Dee and Clatteringshaws. The Rhinns of Kells are 9½ miles as the crow flies from Black Craig to Darrou, and the ridge has a double curve on it making it somewhat longer than that. It tends to be a gently undulating ridge along its length making for relatively easy walking.

Dungeon Hills

Lochs Enoch, Arron and Neldricken, the Dungeon Hills and the Rhinns of Kells

The Dungeon hills from north to south have:

  • Craigmawhannal (1,171 feet) just south of the south end of Loch Doon,
  • Hoodens Hill (1,864 feet),
  • Mullwharchar (2,270 feet),
  • Dungeon Hill (2,001 feet).
  • Craignairny (1,952 feet),
  • Craignaw (2,116 feet),
  • Snibe Hill (1,749 feet) and
  • Craiglee (1,742 feet).

Craiglee is to an extent an outlier from the main ridge lying as it does at the eastern end of the Rig of the Jarkness which runs east to west. Craiglee is just north of Loch Dee.

The Dungeons, as they are often called, are 7 miles from the top of Craigmawhannal to the top of Craiglee as the crow flies. None of these hills gets to the same heights as some hills on the other two ridges but, apart from Mullwharchar, they are much more rocky and rugged and are therefore popular with the rock climber and those who like a bit of scrambling when they walk in the hills.

A planning application was made in January 1978 to the then local council by the UKAEA to test drill on Mullwharchar for the purpose of dumping nuclear waste. In October that year, the Council rejected the application after considerable local protest.[4]

Between the ridges

There is relatively low ground between the Dungeons ridge and the other two ridges on either side of it and this lower ground passes through the whole hill area from north to south forming two corridors through the hills.

However, the surface of the highest loch in the corridor to the west of the Dungeons, Loch Enoch, is actually around 1,600 feet above sea level. Loch Trool is about 230 feet above sea level, showing that the corridor rises significantly as it passes (over a distance of some 3 miles) between the hills on either side.

The surface of Dry Loch of the Dungeon the highest loch to the east of the Dungeons is around 1,080 feet above sea level and most of the Silver Flowe immediately to the south of it lies fairly level at about the 890-foot mark all the way back south to Loch Dee (around 740 feet above sea level). The explanation for this is that the Silver Flowe is a floating or blanket bog and is consequently flat in nature.

Lochs between the Awful Hand and the Dungeons

View over Lochs Arron, Neldricken and Valley to Minnigaff Hills

There are two burns which feed into the eastern end of Loch Trool on its northern shore, the Buchan Burn (the more westerly) and the Gairland Burn, separated by a short ridge, (2 miles long), which runs north from Buchan Hill just north of Loch Trool to Craig Neldricken immediately south of Loch Enoch - the Buchan Ridge.

It is quite possible to use the Buchan Burn route to get to Loch Enoch and you will pass the Grey Man of the Merrick, on your left as you near Loch Enoch. The more popular route however, because of the scenic interest, is to take the Gairland Burn and head north past Loch Valley, Loch Neldricken and Loch Arron before you get to Loch Enoch. This is often called the "Loch's Route onto The Merrick" - though you still have a 1,150-foot climb up Redstone Rig from Loch Enoch to the Merrick.

Taking the west side of Loch Neldricken you will pass a place called in the maps the "Murder Hole" which refers to an incident in Samuel Crockett's novel "The Raiders" - though it is claimed that the real murder hole is near Rowantree Bridge on the Water of Minnoch where the bodies of waylaid, murdered travellers were dumped.[5]

If you go east of Loch Neldricken you can gain access to Loch Enoch by the Wolf Slock. Both of these latter named places figure prominently in the Crockett novel. The sharp granite sand on the beaches of Loch Enoch itself was at one time collected and sold for sharpening knives and scythes.[6]

In McBain's book "The Merrick and Neighbouring Hills" there is a description of how McBain tried to find the depth of Loch Enoch by cutting a series of holes on its icy surface and dropping a weighted line into it - quite alone when he did so. He worked out a depth of 105 feet at what he reckoned was the deepest point.[7] McBain was an intrepid hill walker/climber who was much devoted to these hills and his book exudes his love for the wild places. It is an excellent read for anyone interested in walking hills in general but especilly these hills.

Silver Flowe

Silver Flowe from Dungeon Hill
Ralph Furlow Monument with Loch Dungeon and Meikle Millyea

The Silver Flowe is a National Nature Reserve with a Blanket bog of international importance. It is part of the Merrick Kells Biosphere Reserve[8] and is a Ramsar site [9] for the quality of its peatlands and wetlands. The reserve is owned by the Forestry Commission but is managed through a lease by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Backhill of Bush

Today Backhill of Bush is closed and sealed, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) no longer maintains this bothy, and the Forestry Commission who own the property have sealed it. However until around 1950 it was still in use as the home of a shepherd (or "Hird" in local parlance) working a part of the land known as the Dungeon of Buchan and was reckoned to be the loneliest such outpost in Galloway with the Silver Flowe to the west and the Rhinns of Kells to the east.

Soon after this the land was taken over by the Forestry Commission and the sheep grazings became dense forest, but not before the death of a 17 year old shepherd called Ralph Furlow, an employee of the Department of Agriculture, whose job it was to cross the Rhinns of Kells to tend to the sheep still in the Dungeon area. On 27 January 1954 he was overwhelmed in a snow storm and his death is commemorated by a monument just below Millfire on its east side.[10]

Access into the heart of the Galloway hills from the east and west

The route Ralph Furlow would have used to cross the Rhinns was that used by the former residents of Back Hill - going over the saddle between Corserine and Millfire (OS. Ref NX516863). In earlier times a funeral party taking a "hird's" wife's dead body over the Rhinns was caught in a snowstorm in this saddle and the body had to be left there for several days.[11]

Heading west from Back Hill for the Loch Enoch area the route taken was up the Nick of the Dungeon, a steep boulder-strewn climb, after you had negotiated your way through the watery pools of the Silver Flowe. Months could pass between seeing anyone else from the outside world. The "hirds" and their families had therefore to be both resourceful and self-reliant to spend their working lives there, and it will always be one of the attractions for those who go into wild country like this that you are forced to take responsibility for yourself; the place asks questions of you that you are obliged to take seriously.

There are the remains of several other former buildings scattered around the Galloway hills area; notably at Glenhead close to the Southern Upland Way for example, and at Culsharg on the "tourist route" from Bruce's Stone to the Merrick. The latter can still be used as something of a shelter in bad weather, though it is far from MBA bothy standard. Buildings still in use are to be found around the periphery of the Galloway hills heartland but apart from forest tracks, there are neither public roads nor buildings in use in the heartland itself.

Minnigaff Hills

These hills (which offer excellent views into the heartland of the Galloway hills) lie just south of the east end of Loch Trool and they stretch to the shores of Clatteringshaws Reservoir. Their southern boundary is the A712 New Galloway to Newton Stewart road.

The battle which Bruce's Stone commemorates was actually fought (in 1307) at the southeast end of Loch Trool where Muldonnoch (1,841 feet) falls steeply into it. Southeast of Muldonnoch is Lamachan Hill (2,352 feet), and from there you can head southwest along a ridge to Large Hill (2,218 feet) or head east over Bennanbrack (2,247 feet) to Curleywee (2,211 feet) where you join a small ridge that runs north-south. North takes you a mile over White Hill (1,988 feet) to Loch Dee. The southern ridge is some 2 miles long gradually dropping in height over its length to Black Benwee (1,207 feet).

Some mile and a half east of Loch Dee a ridge of hills runs from just south of Darrou in a south westerly direction and in fact these hills are really a continuation of the line of the Rhinns of Kells. From north to south the hills are Cairngarroch (1,827 feet) Cairnbaber (1,867 feet, above the Buckdas of Cairnbaber), Millfore (2,152 feet) and Drigmorn Hill (1,788 feet).

There is also a small range of hills just to the west of Clatteringshaws Reservoir. On Darnaw, the highest of these hills, 1,549 feet, there is monument to those who died here in an air crash on 2 February 1937.[12]

Air crash sites

A frozen waterfall in the Galloway Hills

The air crash of 1937 is remembered in the monument on Darnaw, and there are many more crash sites (some with monuments) in the Galloway Hills. A monument on Cairnsmore of Fleet lists 9 aircraft which have crashed there. A monument on Craignaw stands to the pilots of an F-111 which crashed there on 19 December 1979. During the Second World War, Dumfriesshire and neighbouring shires were heavily involved in the training of pilots etc. for the war effort and many of the crash sites date from this era.[13][14]

Galloway Forest Park

The whole area of hills that we have been discussing on this page falls within Galloway Forest Park, an area of 300 square miles of mixed landscape with three visitors' centres and offering many recreational facilities. On 15 November 2009, the park became the first "Dark Sky Park" in the United Kingdom.

History in the hills

Like the Outer Hebrides, Galloway had a long history of being largely independent of the Scottish crown, under the Lords of Galloway from the early 12th century until 1234. Going back beyond that there is thought to have been a kingdom of Galloway perhaps going back to the aftermath of the expulsion of the Vikings from Dublin in 902 and the subsequent loss of control by the Northumbrians.[15]

Galloway was long regarded as a wild and lawless place, which was as much as anything to do with its remoteness and inaccessibility. The Galloway Hills played an important part in this image especially as at various point in history it was a place of refuge for fugitives who did not fit into, or defied, the power structure of their times There is still a sense of otherness about the place.

"Cradle of Independence" - A king as a fugitive

View from Eschoncan and Bruce's Stone to the scene of the Battle of Glentrool (1307)
Bruce's Stone Glentrool

Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland on 25 March 1306 little more than a month after he had been involved at Dumfries in the murder of John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, otherwise known as the Red Comyn, who was his rival for the kingship, being grandson on King John (Balliol). Another branch of the Comyn family at his time was that of John Comyn Earl of Buchan, whose lands in Galloway predated their grants in Buchan, and their name, 'Buchan', appears in a number of place-names in the Galloway Hills, such as Buchan Hill and Dungeon of Buchan.

Bruce was defeated by Edward I at the Battle of Methven in June 1306 and he became a fugitive hunted not only by occupying forces of Edward but also by the Comyns and the Balliols. He escaped to Rathlin Island off Antrim coast but by February 1307 he was back in the Galloway Hills, with a tiny handful of followers and totally encircled by his enemies - a king hunted like an animal. However, following a successful early raid on the English forces at Raploch Moss near Clatteringshaws, he had his first victory against Edward’s forces at the battle of Glen Trool, which though a minor encounter was important to the recruitment of men to Bruce's side.

In 1929 on the 600th anniversary of Bruce's death, Bruce's Stone was placed high above the northern shore of Loch Trool from where legend has it that he had commanded the ambush which took place on the Steps of Trool on the other side of the loch. He lived for some 3 months as a fugitive in these hills before he was able to break out of his confinement and go on eventually to the much more significant victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

Robert the Bruce's brother Edward had long since carried out a successful campaign against the Comyn/Balliol faction in these counties before Bannockburn.

Covenanters and The Killing Times

Through most of the 17th century the Presbyterian faction of the church struggled against the will of the Stuart Kings in their attempts to impose episcopacy in the English model and later James VII even attempted to impose Roman practices in the Kirk. The Presbyterians rejected hierarchical priesthood, especially one which was appointed under the patronage of the most powerful people in the land, as an imposition between man and God. The covenanters believed that the reformation settlement in England had simply replaced the power of the Pope over the church with the power of the king over it. These ideas were seen at the time as dangerous sedition by kings who required conformity in the church.

The Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up in 1638 opposing popery and the government of the church by bishops, and it is from this document that the Covenanters take their name. Though the covenant was signed by many across the British Isles, the southwest of Scotland was a particular hotbed of the covenanters and their resistance to the will of the king in religious matters. Over time both sides in this conflict went to extreme ends to have their way.

The full weight of the state was brought against the idealism of the Covenanters, and in response, coveanter meetings were held in remote locations, and were both prayer meetings and military camps, for the covenanters armed themselves. Over a protracted period of time the covenanters were hunted in the hills of Galloway and risked summary execution, so they were seen by their fellows as martyrs for the cause. Several battles between the covenanters and the crown forces were fought in various parts of Scotland, not least in the Galloway Hills.

Eighty two people were summarily killed by soldiers during the Killing Time (1684–85) at least as recorded; unrecorded deaths could be much more. "All over the more desolate parts the Covenanters were being massacred by the soldiers and their bodies left to rot on the heather where they fell. No records were kept of such killings; the victims were simply regarded as 'missing' for none of their relatives or friends knew how or where they had died. For many year after the killing times shepherds were continually finding on hills and moors the bleached skeletons of covenanters who had been killed in this way".[16]

The matter was not resolved until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when under William of Orange presbyterianism was finally established as the form of the Church of Scotland by the Confession of Faith Act, and this was affirmd in the Act of Union of 1707.

In the 18th century the stonemason Robert Paterson devoted his life to going round the country restoring the monuments of the covenanting martyrs and Walter Scott used this real life character as the model for "Old Mortality".

Smugglers and gypsies

The 18th century was the heyday of smuggling along the Solway Coast[17] - sitting as it does only around 20 miles from the Isle of Man, the pathway for most contraband goods. The Galloway hills offered a refuge for these far from idealistic lawless rogues and ruffians - somewhere to retreat to in times of trouble and as a safe route for the strings of up to 200 laden horses which carried their goods to Glasgow or Edinburgh. "During the early 18th century Galloway was infested with gypsies,and it was no accident that Sir Walter Scott should have introduced Meg Merrilees and her tribe into his novel 'Guy Mannering' which is set in the Stewartry."[18]

Gypsy or "Tinkler" clans were heavily involved in the trafficking side of smuggling - getting the contraband to its market. The most notorious of these gypsy smugglers was Billy Marshall (King of the Gypsies) who is said to have fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 at the age of 18 and died on 28 November 1792 – 120 years old and having married 17 times.[19] He was also one of the leaders of the 'Levellers', who knocked down dykes during the night as quickly as enclosing landlords built them during the day.[20]

Another story from west Galloway which helped to give an extra edge to the picture of lawlessness in the area was the legend of the extensive cannibal family of Sawney Bean.

Outside links


  1. Fishing on Rivers Cree and Water of Minnoch
  2. Gazetteer for Scotland
  3. Ayrshire Paths
  4. Scottish Hills Forums
  5. Temperley, Alan (1979) Tales of Galloway p129 footnote.
  6. McBain The Merrick and the Neighbouring Hills (1980 edition) p139
  7. McBain pp146-154
  8. UNESC-MAB Biospheres Reserves Directory
  9. List of Ramsar Sites in Scotland
  10. McFadzean Dave (2004) Tales 'o the Back Buss pp. 65-67
  11. McFadzean p24
  12. Air Crash Sites Scotland
  13. Dumfries Aviation Museum
  14. List of air crash sites in Galloway
  15. Oram, Richard (2000) The Lordship of Galloway p. 1
  16. Robertson The Story of Galloway p.167
  17. Temperley p.271
  18. Russell The Book of Galloway p. 185
  19. Temperley Tales of Galloway pp. 16-27
  20. Russell The Book of Galloway pp. 51-52


  • Atkinson, Tom (1982)South West Scotland Luath Press Barr Ayrshire
  • Crockett S.R. (1894) The Raiders (1894 T Fisher Unwin London and 1992 Alloway Publishing).
  • Irving, Gordon (1971) The Solway Smugglers Dinwiddie Dumfries
  • McBain, J. (1929 and 1980) The Merrick and Neighbouring Hills (1929 Stephen and Pollock of Ayr - 1980 Jackson and Sproat Ayr)
  • McCormick, Andrew (1932) Galloway (The Spell of its Hills and Glens) John Smith Glasgow
  • McFadzean, Dave (2004) Tales 'o the Back Buss GC Books Wigtown
  • McKerlie, P.H. (1891) Galloway In Ancient and Modern Times Blackwood Edinburgh and London
  • MacLeod, Innes (2001) Where the Whaups are Crying (A Dumfries and Galloway Anthology) Birlinn Edinburgh ISBN 1-84158-149-6
  • Oram, Richard (2000) The Lordship of Galloway John Donald Edinburgh ISBN 0-85976-541-5
  • Robertson, John F. (1963) The Story of Galloway 1985 edition published by Lang Syne Publishers Glasgow ISBN 0-946264-49-X
  • Russell, James Anderson (1962) The Book of Galloway Blacklock and Farries Dumfries
  • Sayers, Dorothy L (1931) The Five Red Herrings New York: Harper & Row. 1971 ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  • Temperley, Alan (1979) Tales of Galloway Mainstream Publishing ISBN 1-85158-026-3